The Shadows of Grandeur (Dennis Aubrey)

This post is based on an exchange with Trish Worth on our post “The Capitals of Conques” last week. She wonders what the original builders would think with the current unpainted versions of their masterpieces. “We find them beautiful, but they probably wouldn’t. But then some of your commenters have said they don’t like the colours. Yet, if we could see all these sculptures in their bright colours, we probably wouldn’t use the term ‘dark ages’ any more.”

Ambulatory, Église Saint George, Bourbon-l’Archambault (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Église Saint George, Bourbon-l’Archambault (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

My response talked about Rose Macaulay’s famous “Pleasure of Ruins”. I thought mostly of her “random excursion into a fantastic world,” les ombres de la grandeur. It takes an effort of imagination to reconstruct the power and magnificence of history from the shadows left to us. We can imagine the stupefying magnificence of these lost civilizations because we are overwhelmed by the mere ruins. Because the ruins are by definition incomplete, we are can only reconstruct them in our imagination. This act of creation engages us to a degree independent from mere history. We are personally engaged – emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.

Basilique Saint Sernin, Toulouse (Haute-Garonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Basilique Saint Sernin, Toulouse (Haute-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Since we see these churches today as spare and uncolored, the colors of the stone seem natural, and we imaginatively project backwards to a Middle Ages where this was also natural. We prefer our imaginative creation to the historical reality. In the same way we like to think of the Parthenon and its statuary as unadorned marble, not brightly painted. The “classical” beauty is more elegant and perfect in this imaginative world that we create in our minds.

Choir, looking west, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Choir, looking west, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the same way some people like to think of life in the Middle Ages as brutish and short, that we are somehow better served in our own time than they were in theirs. It is often claimed that the average lifespan for peasants was 30 years or so. Given the high infant mortality, death in war, and childbirth, this may be the case. Investigation of thousands of skeletal remains from more than forty Merovingian cemeteries and excavations of a 9th to 11th century cemetery at Münsterhof in Zurich showed that women’s life expectancy was significantly less than men until they passed child-bearing age. By the age of 40, the gap began to close and by age of 60, the life expectancy was equal for men and women. That means that if one could survive childhood, there was a good chance of living to the age of 50 or 60. In other words, it wasn’t that much different than life in Europe in the 19th century. The brutish and cruel life that we imagined is not accurate.

Side aisle, Église Saint Martin, Artonne (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Église Saint Martin, Artonne (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Most of the time the churches that we investigate are more than ruins. Many are complete and living churches, but they are not of the world that we live in today. We can see and touch the buildings, but their spirit is of another time. Too often they are museums, architectural relics, and tourist destinations. Can one imagine that Notre Dame de Paris, with its long snaking lines of visitors far outside the western portal, ever truly served as a place of worship? In a way, viewing these buildings is like walking through a ghost town in the American West. The buildings stand, but they are filled with the driest sands and winds and weeds.

Crypt stairs in Eglise Notre Dame, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse)  (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

Crypt stairs in Eglise Notre Dame, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse) (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

To get past this barrenness, we often try to understand with our minds, and just as often are led to a dead end. Many people look at the churches as the relic of a barbarous faith represented by the excesses of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Wars of Religion, and the Albigensian Crusade, but nobody built these wonderful structures to commemorate such brutality. The predispositions of the mind prevent the viewer from going further. An atheist might see them – as I have often seen expressed – as a vain and wasted glorification. But these ideas merely confirm our own vested intellectual pretensions.

Cloister, Église Abbatiale Notre Dame de Noirlac, Bruere-Allychamps (Cher) Photo by PJ McKey

Cloister, Église Abbatiale Notre Dame de Noirlac, Bruere-Allychamps (Cher) Photo by PJ McKey

So while we use our imaginations and what little history we may possess as a basis to understand the churches and the faith that created them. we must look also to something else. The last piece of the puzzle, that which engages us the most deeply, is the uncensored response of our heart to what we see. This leads us to the truer depth of understanding. We must see aspirations, fears, and hopes of generations of people who precede us. We must feel what they felt as much as possible, and make a great leap of emotional imagination. Only then can we sense the power of creation that moved the builders. Only then can we sense the threnody of history expressed in art.

Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)

Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)

On the way to his fateful end at Gallipoli, Rupert Brooke marked that he was passing Priam’s citadel at Troy and the ruined site of another great war of the legendary past.

And Priam and his fifty sons
Wake all amazed, and hear the guns,
And shake for Troy again.

Brooke made this leap across time and connected it with his own dark age. He died and was buried with those ancient heroes on the day of Shakespeare’s birth, April 23, 1915. He became part of what Rose Macaulay described as “the ghosts of dead ages sleeping together.”

11 responses to “The Shadows of Grandeur (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. It is the trap of history, to try to piece together the fragments which remain in the light of our own culture…thus, for so long, ‘colour’ was regarded as vulgar, for the lower orders…the sensitive palate preferred the greys and golds of unadorned stone.

    The blanket categorisation of periods as the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages does not help.
    The Dark Ages saw the preservation and circulation of Classical texts, the school of Alcuin; the Middle Ages the thirteenth century renaissance….
    We have, as you say, to try to see with the eyes and feel with the hearts of those who existed then, in their own society, not through the telescope that brings far off objects into the context of our own day.

    • Helen, I think of Brooke lying ill on the ship, facing his own mortality as he steamed below Troy. To imagine what passed at moment in that sensitive, generous soul. Sometimes the universe conspires to teach us against our will and against our determination to believe only in ourselves.

  2. Thanks for the reference, Dennis. Two photos here are amazing – I looked at them again and again – the Basilique Saint Sernin with its telescoping vaults, and the cloister in Notre Dame de Noirlac. The columns and arches look organic, even human, and then there’s the repetition of them. I had to look twice to be sure it was a cloister. Such great photography.

  3. To bring my thoughts into the modern world; in 1991 as Ed and I were wandering through Paris one morning we “discovered ‘ Notre Dame Deschamps.'” We were enchanted, thinking there was only the very impressive “Notre Dame” cathedral we had visited the day before. We ventured in to enter the mass. We had enough French to follow it. My mind sped back through the centuries as I envisioned the population who may or may not have worshiped here. It is probably a much newer church, but it could have been “ours” and we could have been living in the 15th Century.

    • It is a wonderful sensation to feel that you are part of that stream of worshippers. We get a similar sensation walking into an empty country church and stepping across the old stone thresholds, worn down by a thousand years. Thanks for this memoir.

  4. I especially love your damp crypt steps at Notre Dame, Mont-devant-Sassy.
    Thinking about The Pleasure of Ruins (as you mention Rose Macaulay) got me musing on a sort of inverse: the pleasure of false reconstruction… and what Le Corbusier meant with his book Quand les Cathédrales étaient Blanches…

    • John, thanks for the kind words. Once again, you’ve sent me flying off to the library this time on the Le Corbusier book, of which I had never even heard. And I was stunned by his introduction; “Take care that that spirit, misusing height, money, and publicity, does not lay claim to the leadership of the spiritual destinies of the USA.” And what a great ironic title.

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